I undertook my Training Contract to become a solicitor between 2008 to 2010. I was, in terms of my professional life at least, still very much “in the closet”.
I had joined the firm I trained with along with a cohort of around 15 other trainees. There was a real mix of personalities, backgrounds and interests and it was a real eye-opener for me as I had gone through University believing the vast majority of solicitors were very much from one particular “group” in society – I had gone in with the impression that I and I alone was going to be the one that stood out but that wasn’t the case at all, everyone was different.
It did turn out, however, at least as far as I am aware even to today, that I was alone on one particular front- I was the only gay trainee.
I absolutely didn’t feel like I could let this slip on day one, two, ten or even on the last day of my training contract. Coming out to colleagues, even those that I had begun to consider my friends wasn’t an option. I was even asked the question directly “are you gay” and I said “no”. I don’t recognise that person I was 14 years ago.
I had a very strongly held belief that my career would be hampered by others’ opinion or views on my sexuality. I know now the trainees I had grown close to, socialized with, bonded with over our usual trainee gripes, fundraised with and struggled with would have absolutely supported me and it wouldn’t have made a difference as to how they treated me – but they weren’t the decision makers.
The decision makers were older, cis gendered, straight men and women and rightly or wrongly I assumed they wouldn’t have given me the same chances as my fellow trainees if they knew I was a gay man. I don’t recall seeing anyone else who was openly “out” in the office, I had no one to lean on or learn from and I certainly didn’t feel I could be myself in a professional office environment.
Fortunately for me, a friend came into my life at about the right time and they were the first person I felt I could be open and honest with and she enabled me to be myself outside of work primarily. Ironically, she was actually someone I worked with. Having a friendly face in and out of the office meant I could begin to be my more authentic self but never to the point of being an “openly gay man”. She was an ally in every sense of the word and emphasised to me the importance of having these people in your life!
It wasn’t until I qualified and began to feel a little more control over my future, that I was able to bring my true self to work and not shy away from discussing my life outside of work with colleagues – something I had avoided doing as much as possible before.
I won’t forget the first time I positively affirmed my sexuality at work as I felt a rush of adrenalin and fear when it rolled off my tongue but the reaction was one of total nonchalance – perfect. The conversation went like this, “you have a girlfriend right?” “no, I have a boyfriend,” “ah ok, cool, what’s his name?”
That was it, the plaster had been removed.
It is very difficult to appreciate how my work life has changed since 2008 to now and so much of this is down to culture changes in the office and wider society around acceptance and the value of welcoming all people from different backgrounds, characteristics and views at higher levels in businesses.
Since then, the firm I worked with underwent quite a significant change in culture and moved away from the quite stuffy firm it was to what is now a very friendly, open and accepting one where being yourself is recognised as a strength. Seeing other members of the LGBTQ+ community at senior levels in the firm provides reassurance that it isn’t a barrier.
I felt empowered to organise the firm’s inaugural participation in the Birmingham Pride Parade, I have represented members of the LGBTQ+ community on open discussion forums broadcast to staff, actively participated in LGBT Pride Month activities and have even been able to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community as potential clients for the firm by taking part in local networks designed to encourage members of the community to build links, grow their referral relationships and otherwise come together and support queer business owners and leaders.
There is still a long way to go in some respects when it comes to ending stigma and discrimination in all areas of life but when it comes to work – a place you spend so much of your time and energy, it is very reassuring that the vast majority of firms have taken such strides in helping to create environments where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves. I see a lot of trainees and more junior members of the firm actively partaking in LGBTQ+ inclusion groups and involving all members of staff in discussions about the community and I see many allies both old and new supporting them and it’s lovely to see. I wonder how my career would have taken a different path if I had simply had the courage to bring more of myself to work each day.
Just one final point and it was in fact the final message from our CEO at a recent firmwide partner conference - “Keep being yourself”. If that doesn’t sign this off appropriately, I don’t really know what else would.